Hybrid Dynamic-Diegetic Music for Game Music Composers (From Spyder to Sackboy: GDC 2021)

During the Game Developers Conference 2021, video game composer Winifred Phillips delivered a lecture that included a discussion of her music for two projects, including the project pictured here (Spyder for Apple Arcade).

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Hi!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips.  Welcome to installment five in my series of articles based on my lecture, From Spyder to Sackboy: A Big Adventure in Interactive Music.  In delivering my presentation at this year’s edition of the popular Game Developers Conference, I based my lecture content on my experiences composing music for two projects in simultaneous development at Sumo Sheffield – Sackboy: A Big Adventure for PS5/PS4, and Spyder for Apple Arcade.  (Above you’ll see a photo from one of the sections of my GDC 2021 lecture in which I’m discussing the Spyder project).  The music design for these two games included multiple dynamic systems that were both complex and ambitious in scope.  While they both relied on some of the most tried-and-tested strategies for musical interactivity, they were also quite innovative in their own distinctive ways.  While composing music for these projects, I had the opportunity to see how flexible dynamic music models can be.  I learned a lot from the experience, and it was really interesting to explore the similarities and differences during my GDC 2021 lecture!

If you haven’t had a chance to read the previous installments of this series, you can learn first about how dynamic implementation can benefit from the inherent segmentation of traditional song structure when horizontally resequenced.  Then you can pursue the possibilities of horizontal resquencing further with a discussion of the importance of dynamic transitions.  After that, you can examine the dynamic possibilities afforded by pure vertical layering.  Once you’ve completed that article, you can take a look at how horizontal and vertical structures can be combined into hybridized forms.

A bullet list based on video game composer Winifred Phillips' GDC 2021 presentation, focusing on dynamic implementation techniques.With all this in mind, we should remember that a music design doesn’t need to rely strictly on one approach or another.  Combining these strategies yielded effective results for both Sackboy: A Big Adventure and the Spyder game, which I was working on at the same time.

In the article that immediately preceded this one, we focused on Sackboy’s execution of the hybrid horizontal-vertical structure.  The implementation for Spyder, though, was quite different, so let’s take a closer look at that hybridized dynamic approach.

During one of Spyder’s more stealthy levels, Agent 8 infiltrates the enemy’s high-security War Room. While pursuing his mission to obtain some top-secret documents, Agent 8 accidentally turns on a desk radio, triggering some diegetic music to start.  My 60s-style lounge jazz composition begins playing from the radio, and this keeps going throughout the rest of the mission:

Diegetic music – like my lounge jazz track from the War Room radio – is considered to exist inside the fictional narrative, whereas non-diegetic music, or dramatic underscore, is outside of it. Now that we have that continuous diegetic jazz music playing, does this mean we can no longer have dramatic underscore? Not at all!  We just have to apply some creative solutions.

A slide from the Powerpoint presentation of award-winning game composer Winifred Phillips during GDC 2021. This slide accompanied a discussion of how diegetic and non-diegetic music can be combined using dynamic implementation techniques.

The Spyder audio team at Sumo and I solved the problem with a hybrid dynamic music system that included both horizontal segments and vertical layers.  First, a vertical layer would start playing that continuous jazz music from the radio.  Then, the dramatic underscore would come in on top, delivered in over thirty horizontal segments. Like the famous ‘success melody’ from Sackboy that we discussed previously, these music segments were structured to blend with the other music that was already playing.  So – every measure of the radio music had a corresponding measure of dramatic underscore.

This depiction of a Powerpoint slide accompanied a particularly complex explanation of a dynamic music construction for the combination of diegetic and non-diegetic music within the Spyder video game. The lecture was given by Winifred Phillips (BAFTA-nominated video game composer).

These underscore segments would only play when triggered, so they’d usually play in different horizontal sequences.  This helped the music stay fresh as gameplay progressed. Let’s check out what that was like:

This image illustrates a discussion of how the Sackboy: A Big Adventure and Spyder video games employed a hybrid horizontal-vertical interactive music technique, as discussed during the lecture of video game composer Winifred Phillips at GDC 2021.As we can see, this interactive system from the Spyder War Room level accomplishes many goals.  The horizontal segments indicate progress through the level.  They create musical variety, and they reward players for their expert spy skills.  Plus, the vertical layers allow us to merge the diegetic and non-diegetic music together.  Both the Sackboy and Spyder games used the hybrid horizontal-vertical system very effectively, and in very different ways.

There is another goal that dynamic implementation can address, and it’s a much more practical consideration than any of the others.  Dynamic music can stretch one piece of music so that it’s doing the jobs normally done by several tracks.  Dynamic systems can make one piece of music take the place of an ambient track, a puzzle-solving track, and a high-energy action track.  It’s a great way for development teams to optimize music coverage for their games. Let’s see a couple of examples.

In a previous installment of this article series, we checked out the “Shoo-Bee-Doo Hullabaloo” music from Sackboy: A Big Adventure. While we already looked at the big boss-fight music at the end of the level, that same music starts the level in a very low-key way – it’s pretty understated and calm.  And that same musical composition builds over time from the most relaxing textures to the greatest dramatic intensity.  It accomplishes this by virtue of a procession of ever more dramatic segments, and a mix that progressively increases in complexity and weight.

The slide from the Powerpoint presentation of award-winning game composer Winifred Phillips illustrates how the dynamic music system in Sackboy: A Big Adventure helped the "Shoo-Bee-Doo Hullabaloo" music build its intensity over time.

By the time we get to the end of the level, it’s gone from a peaceful ambient texture all the way to a rousing orchestral finale. Let’s check out how that transformation occurred:

So now we’ve looked at how horizontal and vertical elements can be combined into hybrid forms.  These options allow game audio teams to creative dynamic implementation schemes that react to gameplay in lots of awesome ways.  In the final article of this six-part series, we’ll be taking a look at the last item on our list of implementation structures:

A bullet list based on video game composer Winifred Phillips' GDC 2021 presentation, focusing on dynamic implementation techniques.

What happens when we try to capture the best qualities of purely linear music, and retain those advantages from within a hybrid linear-dynamic music system?  We’ll explore that idea in our next article.  Until then, thanks very much for reading!


Photo of video game music composer Winifred Phillips, included in the biography section of her article about video game music.Winifred Phillips is a BAFTA-nominated video game composer whose latest project is the hit PlayStation 5 launch title Sackboy: A Big Adventure (soundtrack album now available).  Popular music from Phillips’ award-winning Assassin’s Creed Liberation score was featured in the performance repertoire of the Assassin’s Creed Symphony World Tour, which made its Paris debut in 2019 with an 80-piece orchestra and choir. As an accomplished video game composer, Phillips is best known for composing music for games in many of the most famous and popular franchises in gaming: the list includes Assassin’s Creed, God of War, Total War, The Sims, and Sackboy / LittleBigPlanet.  Phillips’ has received numerous awards, including an Interactive Achievement Award / D.I.C.E. Award from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, six Game Audio Network Guild Awards (including Music of the Year), and three Hollywood Music in Media Awards. She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the MIT Press. As one of the foremost authorities on music for interactive entertainment, Winifred Phillips has given lectures at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, the Society of Composers and Lyricists, the Game Developers Conference, the Audio Engineering Society, and many more. Phillips’ enthusiastic fans showered her with questions during a Reddit Ask-Me-Anything session that went viral, hit the Reddit front page, received 14.9 thousand upvotes, and became one of the most popular gaming AMAs ever hosted on Reddit. An interview with her has been published as a part of the Routledge text, Women’s Music for the Screen: Diverse Narratives in Sound, which collects the viewpoints of the most esteemed female composers in film, television, and games.  Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

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